|There's a lot of talk
these days about reinventing classical music. Or maybe
just reinventing its marketing, but in any case doing
something to make it come alive -- and assure its
survival -- in an age of O.J. Simpson and Madonna.
There's been some action, too, I know. Record companies offer classical CDs with perky cartoon covers. The three tenors have been marketed almost as a pop act. And, in an unusual but not completely atypical move, the Columbus (Ohio) Symphony -- having discovered that Harley-Davidson riders are as upscale as its usual audience -- built a marketing campaign around the joint excitement of symphonic climaxes and motorcycles.
Some of these approaches might even work, but at best they're experiments. What classical music really needs to do is step back, to attack the problem as a whole. And if anyone really wants to do that, I know the perfect place to start -- Shea Stadium, whenever the New York Mets bring in their closer, John Franco.
|Picture the scene: It's the ninth inning,
and Franco swaggers in from the bullpen to finish a game.
The sound system blares what's virtually his theme song,
Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode." The crowd
sings along with the famous refrain "go, Johnny,
and what's remarkable about all this, from
a classical music point of view, is that there's nothing
remarkable about it at all. We all know the song, and why
wouldn't we? It's nearly 40 years old, a beloved rock
& roll classic. This is the world classical music now
lives in -- a world in which rock (or, more accurately,
the whole range of modern rock-influenced pop, which
ranges all the way from country music to hiphop) is part
of the air we all breathe. How can classical music ever
reach new people, if it doesn't understand the music
those people already love?
So maybe classical music should learn a few things about rock & roll. And the first subject rock can teach is marketing. Pop music, everybody knows, is commercial. The classical music world deplores that of course, and might even dream that classical music could be a purer, more artistic alternative. There's only one problem (and this might be the single best proof that classical music has gotten really distant from American life): Pop music long ago developed artistic alternatives of its own.
|To people who never leave the classical
music ghetto, that may come as a shock, but it's
absolutely true. Pop music generates commercial acts,
like the intensely sleek R&B balladeer Whitney
Houston. But it also produces artistic acts, like the
wry, compassionate rock band R.E.M. R.E.M. qualifies as
artistic because it started its career with no thought of
commercial success, because its music jumps with
unexpected shocks, and because its lyrics (shades of 20th
century high art!) are often difficult and indirect.
Against this background, how does classical music look?
How would brainy pop music fans rate the three tenors?
Against a pop music background, Carerras, Domingo, and
Pavarotti (especially Pavarotti) look just like Whitney
Houston -- safe, predictable, and bland.
That's the first marketing lesson rock & roll can teach: The pop audience already has its own ideas about art, and most certainly won't assume that classical music is artistic just because it's classical. The second lesson, which follows from the first, is that the pop music audience isn't just a single blank lump. To understand how varied it is, imagine what life would be at the Metropolitan Opera if Carmen attracted a baby-boomer crowd, La Boheme drew people in their '20s -- and, when the house did Boris Godunov, the entire audience was black. That's the diversity you see if you go to pop concerts every night, though the divisions go much further, as fans fragment not just by age and race, but by social class and even lifestyle. So if the classical music world wants to reach a pop audience, it has to know which pop audience it means. R.E.M., by now, sells millions of albums. (Which, by the way, ought to remind us that America today isn't just O.J. and Madonna. It's also a land of environmental activism, psychotherapy, Republicans in Congress, and a thousand other serious things classical music doesn't seem to know about.) Why isn't classical music talking to R.E.M.'s audience? Why isn't it talking to rock fans with brains?
|And now for the third lesson.
Pop marketing isn't infallible. Some people in classical
music seem to think it is, as if pop marketers were
sinister puppeteers, and as a result can sell anything to
anybody. But that's not even remotely so. Look at Michael
Jackson, look at Prince, look at Bruce Springsteen, all
superstars who don't sell nearly as many albums as they
used to. All the marketing in the world can't bring their
What pop marketing does shine at, though, is something classical music marketers rarely seem to think about, something the commercial world might call "product differentiation." Pop marketers assume that every artist is (or ought to be) different. Maybe that's hype, half the time, but on the other hand it's based on something real -- the undeniable fact that most pop music artists write their own songs. They have ideas and thoughts of their own (or at least they think they do), and pop music marketing is designed to make us believe in their individuality.
It does that in every possible way, starting with the art -- striking, contemporary, sometimes haunting and evocative -- on CD covers, and ranging down to tiny details like the look of the CD itself, and the language and design of every press release. What, in contrast, does classical marketing convey? Does it tell us what makes one conductor (or pianist, or soprano, or string quartet) different from the others? With very few exceptions, it doesn't even begin to do that, and if savvy pop fans conclude that classical music has nothing to offer well, can you blame them? In a pop context, the main message classical marketing delivers is that classical music has nothing to say.
|How can we fix this? In the short run,
it's more or less easy (in principle, at least).
Classical music has to be marketed like pop, which
paradoxically means presenting it more artistically. (It
could even mimic pop's implicit two-tier system, by
selling Pavarotti as a pop-music bimbo, and a refined
cellist like Yo Yo Ma as an artist.)
But in the long run, classical musicians themselves have to change. If they communicate as eagerly and pointedly as the best of their pop counterparts, it won't be hard to make the world notice. What that would be like is hard to predict, of course, but rock & roll can at least offer a couple of hints.
Take concerts, for instance. Outside the classical music world, everybody knows what happens at a concert. People -- distinct individuals -- come out on stage. They're wearing clothes that makes them happy. They talk to the audience, joke with it, and very often share some serious thoughts about war or tolerance. And if they sing a sad song, they'll turn the lights down, not necessarily because they're trying to manipulate our feelings, but because (and especially in a big hall) it just doesn't make sense to sing a ballad in the same bright glare that suits a hard-rocking cheerful song.
Here, it seems to me, classical music has absolutely no choice. To the world at large, the stiff formality of a classical concert doesn't suggest dignity or art. It conveys just one thing: Utter blankness. Who are these performers? What are they thinking about? Do they even like doing this? You can forget about selling classical music, until you make classical concerts something your prospective audience would recognize as a musical event.
|And from here on out, things get
adventurous. Everyone in the classical music world knows
that classical masterpieces grew -- distantly, but distinctly -- from folk-music roots. Or at least they'd
agree that the great classical composers could
incorporate folk songs in their works, with results that
sounded completely natural and didn't make anyone think
they'd betrayed their art.
Today, the musical roots of our culture aren't in folk songs. They're in rock, country, rhythm and blues -- the entire range of musical styles that typify pop music in the rock & roll era (even rap). Classical music won't seem natural in America until both composition and performance reflect that obvious fact.
How composers can do this is simple enough, and some of them are doing it. They can embed the sound of rock in their work, along with traits of any other musical style they love.
For performers, of course, the job is much trickier, though are one or two very specific things that current pop can teach. One of these is vocal ornamentation -- singers of past centuries embellished the music they sang, and while the tradition of doing that in classical music died long ago, it lives on in R&B, as anyone knows who's ever heard an R&B star add fanciful twists and turns to the national anthem at a sports event.
|But most of the classical repertoire is
hard to connect to current pop. Would we add a drum track
to Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony? But the spirit of rock,
at least, can suggest an idea or two. Beethoven's music
once was contemporary. How can we understand what that
felt like, unless we know the contemporary music of our
own time, which -- if we're talking about music that
connects to the spirit of its age the way Beethoven's did
-- would have to be rock?
Beethoven's music was also revolutionary. How can we feel that -- not just theorize about it, but feel it in our blood -- if we haven't felt the heat of Jimi Hendrix in the '60s, punk in the '70s, rap in the '80s, or Nirvana two years ago? And the list could go on. Classical music, lots of it, is dance music. How can we make it dance, if we haven't gone dancing? Italian opera ought to be larger than life. What can that mean to us, if we haven't heard the larger-than-life performers pop music offers today?
These questions are especially crucial for younger classical musicians, who didn't experience earlier musical revolutions, and weren't around when classical music still burned with the fire of its own great tradition. You could say they should study the past. But they could also jump head first into the present, and, in ways we can barely imagine, evolve a new kind of classical music performance, one that -- honestly, lovingly, and with complete respect for everything we already love about classical music -- sounds like it grows from the world we all live in.
copyright © 1996 by Greg Sandow